On the rare occasion when i’ve had to teach a writing class, usually to students at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the University of the West Indies, there are three publications i use as exemplars of the best writing available in English today. They are Time, Newsweek and the Economist. These three global newsmagazines, employ some of the best writers in the world today evident in the tightly constructed, yet fluid articles they feature, some no more than half a page in length, or a few hundred words, but words so expertly chosen and so economically strung together that (like the ant which carries loads several times its size on its tiny back) the quantity of information they convey belies their slender word counts.
Or so i thought. When i relayed this opinion at a dinner party once, someone, and I wish i could remember who this was, suggested that I was wrong. It’s not good writers these newsmagazines have, she or he said, it’s excellent editors. Hmmmm i thought to myself at the time, not entirely convinced. Now in the wake of writing an article on Usain Bolt for the current issue of Newsweek I know exactly what they meant; they were right.
When i got back the first edit of my article from Sam Seibert, an editor at Newsweek, i was mortified but also somewhat pleased. It was a drastic edit, with some rewriting and additions to my text in places (was my writing as poor as that?), but on the whole i couldn’t deny that it had improved my submission considerably. In fact there were some lessons about writing that Sam’s expert editing and rewriting reminded me of and i can’t thank him enough for this. The transition from one paragraph to another for instance; how to link thoughts and words so that the narrative flows along at a clip bearing the reader along.
Of course some of the changes inevitably shift the emphasis, sometimes even altering the meaning that was originally intended. I was given the opportunity to correct his rewrite more than once but the turnaround time was short and in retrospect i see a few things now which i should have rephrased. They’ve come to my attention because of the number of negative reactions, even objections to some of the things i say in the article. For example Dionne Jackson-Miller, one of the top journalists here whose shows I regularly tune into on radio and tv, posted on Facebook saying: Several comments gave me pause Annie Paul like this one…” In a land where hardly anything else works, an exemplary tradition of track-and-field instruction and competition has flourished for almost 100 years. ” Gonna have to think about that – are we really as underdeveloped as that suggests?
I could see her point, it was a harsh statement. Had i really said that? i went back to the text I had sent Newsweek and found something slightly different: “In a country where hardly anything works as it should an exemplary tradition of track and field instruction and administration has existed for almost 100 years.”
In fact it’s worth quoting the entire section this line was taken from, in which in an attempt to explain the Bolt phenomenon i try to sketch out the roots of the athletic culture that has developed in Jamaica.
Biological and dietary considerations aside the truth is that to ‘get’ Usain you have to get Jamaica, a country and culture riven by contradictions and inconsistency. To call Jamaica a ‘sprint factory’ is misleading; far from churning out cookie-cutter champions Jamaica is a crucible in which unique, world-class runners are formed, bursting onto the world stage at regular intervals and conquering it against all odds. They’ve been doing this since the 1948 Olympics when Jamaican runners, Arthur Wint and Herbert McKenley, won gold and silver in the 400m. In a country where hardly anything works as it should an exemplary tradition of track and field instruction and administration has existed for almost 100 years.
A nation of fervent Christians and bible thumpers, Jamaica has a deeply entrenched network of churches which may have been very receptive to nineteenth century British ideas about ‘muscular Christianity’. This may explain why running became so popular; anyone, anywhere could do it you didn’t neeed deep pockets or an expensive infrastructure to become a runner. By the middle of the twentieth century the sport was flourishing in Jamaica. According to Patrick Robinson, author of Jamaican Athletics: “There is no entity or area of endeavour in Jamaica, whether in the public or private sector, that is as well organized and, applying international standards, has been as consistently successful as track and field athletics.”
Whereas earlier generations of promising athletes with Olympic ambitions had to go abroad to be trained on track scholarships, Jamaica now has its own world-class coaches, trainers and managers. Stephen Francis of MVP Track Club and Glen Mills of Racers Track Club are two whose homegrown battalion of runners in the last two Olympics stupefied the world. Glen Mills is not only Usain Bolt’s coach, he is also the man behind young Yohan Blake, Bolt’s most dangerous opponent in the upcoming Olympic 100 and 200m races.
Blessed with exceptional natural talent in running Usain Bolt benefited from the systems already in place to identify potential athletes and train them. His passion as a child was cricket and he played on his school team from an early age. Fortunately his father and others noticed the speed with which he ran down the pitch and sent him to the William Knibb Memorial High School, a school with a strong track and field programme that gave sports scholarships and has produced a number of the country’s top athletes including the multiple-gold medal winning Veronica Campbell Brown.
Much of this landed on the cutting floor during Newsweek’s editorial process and what was left was this:
Running is a sport that seems practically ideal for a country like Jamaica. You don’t need deep pockets or fancy equipment to become a great runner. In a land where hardly anything else works, an exemplary tradition of track-and-field instruction and competition has flourished for almost 100 years. The island first seized the world’s attention back in 1948 when Jamaican runners Arthur Wint and Herbert McKenley won the gold and silver in the 400m in London.
Nevertheless, the sport that first captured the boy’s heart was not running, but cricket. He played on his school team from an early age, and it was on the pitch that his extraordinary speed first caught the attention of the town’s grown-ups. He became a prize recruit for William Knibb Memorial High School, which featured both a strong track-and-field program and sports scholarships. Knibb has produced many of Jamaica’s top athletes.
Sam Seibert’s editing of my article was so drastic that i actually asked if he’d be sharing the byline with me, but that’s not the convention in most major print media. It was interesting to come across an article called How the Byline Beast was Born, the very day after i got back the first edit of my article. I realized that there was no need for me to be crestfallen, that the process i had just undergone was pretty standard. In Byline Beast Jack Shafer was writing about the recent fuss about Journatic a content farm that provides local news stories to news media all over the United States. It’s a fascinating article i highly recommend, the following is only a small quote of immediate relevance to the editorial process i describe above:
In even the most professional of newsrooms, editors frequently do sufficient work on a piece – reporting and re-reporting sections, composing long passages without the assistance of the bylined writer, redefining the story’s parameters – that they deserve a byline or at least a co-byline. Yet magazine, newspaper and wire editors rarely receive this credit for their extraordinary interventions.
Although I highlight the radical edit of my article in this post I don’t blame it entirely for people’s reactions to what I’ve said in this article. When I call Jamaica a country where hardly anything functions as it should I’m referring to the major structures of governance that serve the needs of most citizens here so poorly that they’ve created their own informal structures and processes. While middle-class Jamaicans may well find things to be proud of–the system does work on their behalf after all–large numbers of poorer Jamaicans may disagree, for there is a sharp divergence in the way they are treated by the Police, the Justice system, the education system and government processes in general. Even the media in Jamaica treats you differently based on whether you come from uptown or downtown.
Incidentally the text i sent Newsweek was titled Usain Bolt: A Latter-day Hermes? but news media here and elsewhere rarely use headlines provided by writers, they have special people on board just to write headlines.
There were other things i said in my article which upset readers here and in the diaspora. I’ll discuss those in subsequent posts. In the meantime enjoy this Dorian Scott video of Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and others building a vibe on the racetrack in Birmingham while they prepare for the Olympics. Scott is representing Jamaica in shotput at the upcoming Olympics. You may need a Facebook account to view the video but it’s well worth it.
PS: The photos at the top of this post are from the UK Telegraph.